Hassie Kate Gresham

Copyright (2006) * All rights reserved
J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference

Hassie Kate Gresham


(Photographic services by Fred Cannon)

Early in our nation’s history, Daniel Boone shot a bear along a stage road in upper East Tennessee, carving his name and an inscription on a beech tree to commemorate the event. "D Boone cilled a bar on tree in year 1760," the inscription said. As late as 1917, the tree still stood on Boone’s Creek in Washington County, Tennessee.

In Buffalo Ridge, near Jonesborough about an aerial mile away from D. Boone’s tree, another pioneer was born. She became the first female high school principal in Tennessee.

That pioneer in the field of education was Hassie K. Gresham.

Those who attended Knoxville Central High School between 1919 and 1947, while she was principal, will attest to her influence on their academic success, their pursuit of a career and their contribution to society. She practiced the Golden Rule and stimulated her students to do the same. Students learned to be considerate of their peers, to preserve school property and to maintain the beauty of the campus. 

Hassie Kate Gresham was born on March 19, 1877. Her parents were James Madison Gresham (1844-1905), farmer and postmaster, and the former Mary Elizabeth Barnes (1847-1896). Hassie K. was next to the youngest of ten children. Her siblings were: Mary Elizabeth, George N., Ida, Belle, Cordelia (Keebler), John Fuller, Horace, James Madison, Charles Sumner and William W. Gresham. Later in life she would remark that she learned how to work with her male students through the "give and take" required to cope with life on a working farm with six brothers.

After graduating from high school, she entered Holbrook Normal College and graduated in 1902 after it had become Tennessee Normal College. She then taught for four months in a small school in Chucky Valley near Jonesborough.  Her students ranged from a 25-year old "tough" who was in school for the first time in his life to a handicapped child who learned to read though he could only attend school on Saturday.  Armed with new methods of teaching acquired at Holbrook, she had many successes and later described this as the happiest time of her career. In reflecting on the experience she asked, "Can you wonder that being a teacher is glorious?"

Gresham moved to Knoxville and began her teaching career there as a substitute teacher at West View Elementary School. The Knox County school board first thought the position required a man, but they ultimately hired her. To no one’s surprise who knew her in later life, she held her ground, taught with firmness and fairness and proved the board in error.

Her long career at Central High School began in 1908 when she joined the faculty as an English teacher with a six-week contract. For the next four decades her academic and home life would revolve around the school.

While J. Frank Davidson was principal, Miss Gresham's apartment was in this house, 

formerly built for Josiah Holbrook, president of Holbrook College (1930 Sequoyah).

While J. Frank Davidson was principal, she lived in an apartment in the house just to the east of the school, which was originally built for the president of the college. Much later, a more modern house was built for her use on the west side of the school. Vandals destroyed the home by fire long after she retired, but the site was converted to an environmental center still used by the faculty and students of Gresham Middle School.


Later, Miss Gresham's home was on campus to the west of the school (1941 Centralite).

Upon the resignation of E.E. Patton, who had been elected to the state legislature, Gresham became principal at Central in 1919 and served in that capacity for the next 28 years. When she assumed the position there were 192 students. The enrollment had grown to 1,500 at the time of her retirement.

In spite of increasing administrative responsibilities as the student body grew, Gresham continued to teach senior English. Former students remember how her deep, grey eyes and dramatic tones held them spellbound as she recited passages from Shakespeare.

One student said, "She was in another world when she recited. She lived it. She taught ‘Hamlet’ to every senior class. She would walk into class and ask someone to read the last line of the previous lesson. She would pick up the next line from memory, continue the story and never look at the book. I sat there in awe expecting characters to walk across the room."

A believer in strict discipline, Gresham declared that students like to be directed and controlled. She felt that they needed to be both "pruned and cultivated" and she always seemed to know just the proper technique to use to motivate them.

Miss Gresham retired in 1947 because, "It was best for my community." Many thought she did so before her native enthusiasm and academic strength could diminish, since her natural tendency was to think of her students first and then herself.

At the time of her retirement, she remarked that she had had some association with almost every family in Knox County and had her "boys and girls" in various parts of the world. During World War I she had "boys" in the service from a general on down. Many of her former students served in World War II and several made the supreme sacrifice.

She not only taught thousands of students, but also sent them out into their chosen careers with lasting inspiration. During a trip to her physician not long before retiring, she scanned the directory of a medical building in downtown (probably the most prestigious in Knoxville at the time—the Medical Arts Building) and found nine of her "boys" were physicians there.

Her students qualified for admittance to many of the best universities and became respected leaders in their chosen fields--attorneys and judges, physicians and nurses, teachers and principals, colonels and generals, business leaders and bankers, ministers and music directors, all-pro athletes and nationally-known musicians, newspaper reporters and Pulitzer-prize winning journalists.

Miss Gresham in retirement in Jonesborough

(Courtesy Knoxville News-Sentinel Archive)

Upon her retirement, Gresham moved to Jonesborough to live with her brother, James, a retired Oklahoma attorney, and two sisters, Ida and Belle Gresham, who never married. She cared for her siblings through their final days then stayed for a time with two nieces on historic Roane Street in Johnson City. She then moved to nearby Appalachian Christian Home.


(Courtesy Knoxville News-Sentinel Archive)

Her former students and the community honored Gresham in many ways. In 1947-48, with Hugh Bowling and Carlos Campbell leading the campaign, funds were raised to commission her portrait. Hugh Poe, a prominent portrait artist in Pittsburgh and a former staff artist at the Knoxville Journal, painted a lifelike oil. The portrait was unveiled in a ceremony with Miss Gresham present on March 25, 1948, and still hangs in Gresham Middle School with a gold-plated silver plaque attached inscribed, "Teacher 1908-1919; Principal 1919-1947; a great teacher; a greater builder of character."

In 1968, at her 91st birthday, the East Tennessee Sertoma Club selected Miss Gresham for their "Service to Mankind" award. The plaque reading, "To those who know not, no words can paint; and those who know thee, know all words are faint," was presented by Sertoma president William F. Sheffer,  her former student.  Nannie Lee Hicks, her close friend and a member of her faculty for many years, was present for the ceremony.

Hicks, a pre-eminent Fountain City historian, called her "The Very Heart of Central High School." In March 1968, the City School Board resolved to name the former Central High School building Gresham Junior High in her honor. The building was constructed during her tenure in 1931. After some expansion, it is still in use as Gresham Middle School.

On August 7, 1970, Knox County’s most influential educator passed on to her reward at 93 years of age.  Fountain City is a better place to obtain an education, to pursue a career and to raise a family because this giant in the field of education passed our way.

(Author’s Note: The author wishes to thank Miss Gresham and her faculty for making available the finest high school education possible anywhere during his years at Central [1940-1944]. Thanks also to Mrs. Lorene Barry Gresham, Jean Dobbins Payne, Don Raby and David A. Tumblin for their assistance in the preparation of this essay.)


(Courtesy Knoxville News-Sentinel Archive)


(Courtesy Knoxville News-Sentinel Archive)


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